Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages hitting police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.
An Associated Press review of dozens of police and sheriff's departments found that many are struggling with delays as long as a year for both handgun and rifle ammunition. And the shortages are resulting in prices as much as double what departments were paying just a year ago.
"There were warehouses full of it. Now, that isn't the case," said Al Aden, police chief in Pierre, S.D.
Departments in all parts of the country reported delays or reductions in training and, in at least one case, a proposal to use paint-ball guns in firing drills as a way to conserve real ammo.
Forgoing proper, repetitive weapons training comes with a price on the streets, police say, in diminished accuracy, quickness on the draw and basic decision-making skills.
Demand way up
The pinch is blamed on a skyrocketing demand for ammunition that followed the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driven by the training needs of a military at war, and, ironically, police departments increasing their own practice regimens following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The increasingly voracious demand for copper and lead overseas, especially in China, has also been a factor.
The military is in no danger of running out because it gets the overwhelming majority of its ammunition from a dedicated plant outside Kansas City, Mo. But police are at the mercy of commercial manufacturers.
None of the departments surveyed by the AP said it had pulled guns off the street, and many departments reported no problems buying ammunition. But others said they face higher prices and monthslong delays.
Departments get creative
In Oklahoma City, for example, officers cannot qualify with AR-15 rifles because the department does not have enough .223-caliber ammunition - a round similar to that fired by the military's M-16 and M4 rifles. Last fall, an ammunition shortage forced the department to cancel qualification courses for several different guns.
"We've got to teach the officers how to use the weapon, and they've got to be able to go to the range and qualify with the weapon and show proficiency," said department spokesman Capt. Steve McCool. "And you can't do that unless you have the rounds."
In Milwaukee, supplies of .40-caliber handgun bullets and .223-caliber rifle rounds have gotten so low the department has repeatedly dipped into its ammunition reserves. Some weapons training has already been cut by 30 percent, and lessons on rifles have been altered to conserve bullets.
In Indianapolis, police spokesman Lt. Jeff Duhamell said the department has enough ammunition for now, but is considering using paint balls during a two-week training course, during which recruits normally fire about 1,000 rounds each.
"It's all based on the demands in Iraq," Duhamell said. "A lot of the companies are trying to keep up with the demands of the war and the demands of training police departments. The price increased too - went up 15 to 20 percent - and they were advising us ... to order as much as you can."
Higher prices are common. In Madison, Wis., police Sgt. Lauri Schwartz said the city spent $40,000 on ammunition in 2004, a figure that rose to $53,000 this year. The department is budgeting for prices 22 percent higher in 2008.
The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., directly supplies the military with more than 80 percent of its small-arms ammunition. Production at the factory has more than tripled since 2002, rising from roughly 425 million rounds that year to 1.4 billion rounds in 2006, according to the Joint Munitions Command at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.
Most of the rest of the military's small-arms ammunition comes from Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics Corp., which relies partly on subcontractors - some of whom also supply police departments. Right now, their priority is filling the military's orders, said Darren Newsom, general manager of The Hunting Shack in Stevensville, Mont., which ships 250,000 rounds a day as it supplies ammunition to 3,000 police departments nationwide.
"There's just a major shortage on ammo in the U.S. right now," he said, pointing to his current backorder for 2.5 million rounds of .223-caliber ammunition. "It's just terrible."